Texas freshmen ‘Gunners’ remain holstered, for now

Chasity Patterson. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.
Chasity Patterson. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.

Chasity Patterson couldn’t catch a break.

At a practice last Dec. 5, the Texas Longhorns were scrimmaging against an all-male scout team. Patterson was operating the point guard spot and doing a fine job – on offense.

On defense, the freshman was tasked with guarding a ball-handler half a foot taller and half a step quicker. Every other trip down the court, Patterson’s man would nudge her to one side, magnetize her to his hip and bolt his way into the paint.

The play bent the Longhorns’ defense every time. Either a post or a strongside wing would rotate to cut off Patterson’s man, leaving a shooter wide open.

Head coach Karen Aston wanted her team to string a few stops together before she subbed in a fresh crew. Twenty minutes passed. Aston was tired of the Patterson’s ineptitude. Patterson was just tired.

“Chas, these post players can’t help you,” Aston told her. “They’re busy literally guarding the other team’s best players. Stop relying on them. Stop letting your man do whatever he wants and stop the ball. You have one minute to catch your breath and learn how to play. We’re going to be here another two hours.”

After the water break, Patterson sharpened up and kept her opponent corralled outside. Texas racked up a few consecutive stops, and Aston ended the practice shortly after.

It was a “welcome to college” moment for the point guard. Every freshman goes through one. The Longhorns’ freshmen have been through a few.

Patterson was the No. 4 overall player in the 2017 class, and was the first to sign to Texas’ third-ranked class, followed by No. 3 Rellah Boothe and No. 33 Destiny Littleton. The trio make up the highest-ranked class of Aston’s era.

“Those guys are ‘The Gunners’,” Aston said. “I’m going to call them a headache today. You can call them The Gunners because those three can shoot it.”

Each Gunner is equipped with a snappy release and elite accuracy. They’re lethal from anywhere on the court, and are always ready to pull the trigger.

“I definitely feel that this class is special at the three-point range,” Littleton said. “Last year, I felt like they were lacking in three-point shooters and teams could guard them very easily. And so I think this year, even though we might not be playing 40 minutes a game, when we do come in the game, we can definitely make an effect.”

The freshmen don’t always bring the same intensity to the defensive end. The speed of college players makes everything complex. Everyone’s fast. You can’t relax. Blink, and your man cuts through the back door for an easy nod at the rim.

The trio has struggled. Most rookies do.

Rellah Boothe. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.
Rellah Boothe. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.

“I’ve never been exposed to the things I’m exposed to here,” Boothe said. “In high school I was able to beat everybody down the court. But now, it’s like everybody’s good. You don’t have to worry about playing a sorry team. Everybody’s a good team and you have to play hard every day.”

Aston still doesn’t cut them any slack. She’s a defensive tactician. She doesn’t care if they’re able to drop 20 points in a game if they can’t stop their opponent from scoring 21.

The Gunners could use more opportunities iron out the wrinkles in their games, but playing time is scarce. Aston has juggled her bench minutes all year, and a team that’s revving up for a deep postseason run doesn’t necessarily have time to slow down for players who aren’t ready. The coach has tried her best.

Rather than tossing them directly into the fire, Aston’s tried slow-roasting the trio to warm them up to the college game. She’s dispensed spot minutes intermittently, giving each player a taste of what the in-game action feels like. When they play well, she keeps them on the floor. When they don’t, she takes them back out.

The fourth quarter has become recess for the kids. When the Longhorns pull away early in the game, Aston lets them run the show in the fourth quarter. It’s been their main source of minutes.

It doesn’t happen every game. Aston sticks with her upperclassmen if the Longhorns trail or can’t quite shake their opponent. Some games, the freshmen never check in.

The Gunners knew how talented Texas was when they committed to the 40 Acres. It’s one of the reasons they wanted to become Longhorns.

Destiny Littleton. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.
Destiny Littleton. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.

“I definitely could have went to a team where I was the best player, but that’s not what I want,” Littleton said. “I want to get better. And the only way I’m going to get better is playing against people who are better than me, who are more experienced and who know the game. That’s why I came to Texas and that’s why I felt these players would make me better each and every day.”

It hasn’t been easy, though. Each freshman was a star at their respective high school. They’re used to playing nearly the entire game – not riding the bench.

Littleton was the leading scorer in California state high school history. She averaged 42.7 points per game her senior season and passed up WNBA All-Star Charde Houston and Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller for the title.

Boothe was the top-ranked post of the class. She won a gold medal with the USA U18 team at the FIBA Americas Championship in 2016 and was the MVP of the 2017 McDonald’s All-American Game.

Patterson was the top-ranked point guard. She was a Naismith High School Player of the Year semifinalist as a senior and was named as this season’s Big 12 Preseason Freshman of the Year.

Despite their accolades, the trio are on pace to play the fewest total minutes out of any Aston’s Texas classes.

“I think that’s the biggest adjustment from coming from high school to here,” Boothe said. “I’m not used to coming off the bench. It feels weird, but then again, we all want to win. But I want to be able to help. And I’m able to, I get in the game and stuff. But I’m not a starter, and I’m working my way towards that. I have a lot of work to do.”

Patterson was at work again two weeks ago, putting up shots with sophomore wing Jada Underwood at the Frank Erwin Center. They took turns shooting threes from the left wing.

Underwood was in the same position as The Gunners last season. She knows how difficult it is to figure out a role on the team, especially with limited playing time.

She also knows how to get through it.

“I think when coach calls your name you just got to grind,” Underwood said. “Some nights you’ve just got to get yourself into it and just know that if coach calls your number, she wants you to go in to do something. So, you’ve just got to give 100 percent, whether it’s 10 minutes, 20, 30, 40.”

Underwood squared up her feet, glanced up at the rim and launches a triple. The ball hit the back of the rim and bounced out.

“Jada, your hands are coming way too close together,” assistant coach Jamie Carey told Underwood.

“I felt it,” Underwood replied.

Patterson took mental notes. She waited for Carey to finish her critique of Underwood before lining back up. She nodded as if Carey was speaking directly to her, then raised up for another triple. The ball sailed in. She’s learning.

Underwood hit her next shot. She’s still learning, too.

“You learn a lot from (your freshman year),” Underwood said. “You change your depth. You see what you could do better. You see what you don’t do. You learn who Coach (Aston) is and what Coach likes and learn from team meetings. I wouldn’t trade anything for the first year. But, it’s a learning process.”

Each freshman has high expectations for herself and goals she wants to accomplish at Texas. They want to graduate. They want to be leaders of the team. They want to win every award in the book, along with multiple national championships.

But barring a major injury, the trio probably won’t see an increase in playing time this season. March Madness looms, and Aston has to tighten up her rotation. Every minute must be quality.

The freshmen’s time will come. Aston hoped it would be this season, but it hasn’t worked out that way yet.

“I thought they would contribute,” Aston said. “They’ve had some setbacks that, quite honestly, were unexpected. And, I mean, you always expect freshmen to have those ups and downs that freshmen have. But I didn’t think that they’d have this many setbacks. So, their skillsets definitely would help us. But, they have to be at a place where they feel really comfortable and confident. And they’ve had some setbacks with that.”

The Gunners will stay holstered for now, ready to fire away.